I'm constantly surprised at the number of different ways social networks treat the 'friending' process. Chris does an awesome job of recording these patterns via screenshot, but I want to outline a couple of the treatments of the processes of friending and how a couple of my favourite social networks handle it. Particularly:

  1. "Levels" of friends
  2. Adding friends process

Levels of Friends

As we well know, not all friends are created equal...especially in today's world of ubiquitous social networking. There are friends (people who you know you can count on - who you hang out with or interact with regularly) and then there are contacts (people you know casually, most likely through online contact). Some SNs allow you to distinguish between friends and contacts and some even allow additional levels of distinction (family, etc.).

Who Does it Well

VOX [Levels of friends]

Add as friend

Vox, a blogging community, looks at your list of contacts as a neighbourhood...a nice metaphor for the type of community they've built. Within your neighbourhood, you can have two additional, smaller, circles: friends and family. Having these smaller circles allows for specific permission levels as well. Naked photos of your baby in the bathtub? That's cool, permit family to view it only. Party photos from the houseboat trip? Exclude family and allow for friends only.

Other networks who handle these levels are: Flickr, Blip.tv and YouTube.

ClaimID [XFN]

claimID.com/missrogue - Tara Hunt

ClaimID, an OpenID provider, adds something very cool to their friending process: XFN. Personally, I've loved the idea of XFN from the moment I laid eyes on it. A simple combination of values makes up nearly every type of relationship I've ever had and, if there was a caching program ever created that could timeline these, we could watch the growth and decay of friendships over time. The only piece I think XFN is missing is a bit more robust business relationships (as a small business owner, coworker and colleague don't quite cut it...I need to add client, vendor and lead, which delineates a personal contact from a business contact). It's really my wish that every social network of the future adopt these values so that I can chunk my relationships a wee bit better.

Other networks who use XFN are: Wordpress and Conferenceer.

Who Does it Poorly

Facebook [Wacky random relationship structures]

factoryjoe on Flickr

I don't know too many people who can find value in this motley list that Facebook provides you upon accepting a friend request. Now, granted, this list is grandfathered from the days where Facebook was an app limited to college students, but still, most people fall under my 'random' category. That being said, I do love the way Facebook tracks the relationship changes in my newsfeed. I know it is decadent, but I can't help but watch these. If only they could track the same in XFN...

Other networks who use their own wacky relationship structure: Amazon (pretty granular).

MyBlogLog [No-choice Friending]

factoryjoe on Flickr

I'm not sure who else is out there who auto-adds, but I like to have more choice when it comes to who I friend than what I was given on MyBlogLog. I didn't really ever get into it, but when I did decide to give it a whirl, I was less bothered by seeing my face being tracked on blogs than I was bothered by the fact that blogs I'd hit more than a few times were automatically added to my favourites and friends. I still think that in the realm of friending, we should have some choice.

Adding Friends Process

The 'adding friends' process is when you either find someone and 'friend' them, reply positively to a friend request or manage your connections in general. Some SNs have done an amazing job thinking and rethinking the ways in which they could make our lives so much easier. Some fall flat.

Who Does it Well

Dopplr [easy friend management]

DOPPLR: Account management for Tara Hunt

Dopplr, an awesome network where travelers can post their upcoming trips and compare where they and their friends will be, does an amazing job of helping it's community connect. For one, it shows you all of the outstanding invitations you have (whose trips can YOU see). There have been times of major influxes of bodies to other social networks when I couldn't keep track of who I accepted and who I declined. Dopplr also keeps track of who you have friended (who can see YOUR trips). A nice tab to have in case you need a quick 'turn off'. Even more elegant, though, they've added two other tabs that may help you connect with other long-lost friends: New travelers and Who You Might Know (friends of friends). These totally rock and make finding friends super easy (without having to import my gmail address book!).

Flickr [Using Ajax friending]

factoryjoe on flickr

Flickr, my fave photo sharing site, uses AJAX in the most brilliant way for their friending process. Just hover over an avatar and add someone in an instant. Another AJAX lighbox comes up to ask you if you want to add the friend or family level to this relationship. No page refreshes. It rocks. Personally, I wish every social network would make friending so darned easy.

Other networks using ajax friending interfaces: Slideshare

Who Does it Poorly

Instead of pointing out individuals on this (other than how disastrous it was in the upswing of Twittermania to try to keep track of incoming requests), some general anti-patterns when it comes to the Adding Friends Process are:

  • Difficult to see/find 'Add as Friend' links
  • An inability to find others in the network (no community pages, no friends of friends lists or access to your friends' friend lists, no people search, etc.)
  • Too many clicks to add a friend (click on the link, page loads choices, then you get a third page of confirmation)
  • Duplicate mailboxes (on the SN and in your email box) for friend requests (Flickr, Ma.gnolia and others do this, it's maddening). I'd like to see more of the Dopplr type separation of contact management.

All in all, most social networks I encounter follow the anti-patterns of friending and make the process 'unfriendly'. Personally, I'd like to establish a more substantial list of these user interfaces where people, including end users like myself, can vote on the best treatment of these processes (hint, hint factoryjoe, notasausage and atariboy) because I'd love to see this knowledge exchanged. It would definitely make the web a nicer place to surf. :)

Also, I didn't cover a third crucial part of friending here, either (which I will address in the future). That is: why have friends at all? Adding friending without a purpose is a bit ridiculous. However, if you can define a reason for people to narrow the network down to a specific peer group, do it and do it well.